Thanks for coming out, America: Are pop culture and politics on the same queer path?
In 2012, you can be gay at church camp. Well, on MTV's Awkward, anyway.
Waking up on November 7, I felt like a million bucks. A million bucks that could breathe again, knowing that my president was still mine, my uterus was in the clear, and so many people had exercised the right to vote. That part, the voting part, was the most exciting, because after months of the impending "voter apathy" spin put on 2012's election by both sides, we could see that it was just that: spin.
But something else came out of this year's election: gay. A whole lot of it, in the form of legislation, "out" elected officials and an overwhelming move toward the acceptance and embrace of gay that I didn't think I would see so strong in my lifetime.
It isn't that I thought the gay civil rights movement wouldn't come to this point; the ball has been rolling along steadily for a good century. But I didn't think I would see the kind of "mainstream acceptance" that is now in place in American culture.
In the entertainment world today, gay parents exist on television, pop stars don't have to act "straight" anymore, and kids can be gay, or straight or queer or however they see fit to identify themselves. (This isn't to say, however, that Hollywood didn't and doesn't still have a very shady, very discriminatory and misleading relationship with queer characters.) But now, more than ever, our political landscape is mirroring the positive progression that is happening elsewhere in our society.
The New Yorker's Alex Ross spoke to NPR yesterday about his piece on the recent political past and future of the gay community, contextualizing and commenting in a way that got me thinking about what I myself have seen. Growing up in a socially progressive home, I wasn't exposed to gay culture with any hint of a negative connotation -- but I also wasn't living in a time where something like my new favorite teen show, MTV's Awkward, could have fifteen-year-old gay characters making jokes about being a "top" or a "bottom." Things were different. Having a politically active, fellow-ally sister who is eighteen, I feel like I'm constantly giving her the "when I was your age" talk about how, when I was in high school in the '90s, "gay" barely existed in the pop culture that dominated the lives of those under thirty.
I feel like the first time I saw someone on television who identified as young and queer and wasn't stereotyped into the "kooky hairstylist" or "sassy caterer" role was when Rickie Vasquez on My So-Called Life appeared. Even then, he was a spectacle. He was one of the troubled ones, his life acting as an after-school special component of the show while main character Angela Chase got all the plot lines written about her supposedly horrendous, mostly melodramatic two-parent middle-class life.
Rickie wasn't the lone gay character on television or in movies, but he was the character who symbolized where gay culture was to me just a handful of years ago. He was gay, I was a progressive Courtney Love-mimicking teenager with a pink triangle pin on my leather jacket, and I didn't know a single gay kid my age. I learned later that I did -- my best friend from high school came out when we were in our twenties, along with many other friends -- but even if we both knew he was gay then, we didn't know anything about what it was like to be out.
Beyond Rickie, there were many characters, movies and figures in popular culture that I knew and loved and were identified as "gay" in some capacity -- like RuPaul, Keith Haring, Pedro Zamora and John Waters. I faintly remember the older girls at my Catholic school wearing George Michael pins on their uniform skirts during his Faith era, when he was still being Liberace'd out to teen girls as pop-candy bait.
I fell for him later, when "Freedom '90" first blew my mind in video form -- because it was a montage of all my favorite supermodels of the time. It was only later, as I pored over the lyrics in the CD insert, that I realized it was Michael's coming-out story. It was also his rebellion against the industry that marketed him as "straight."
While this masking of sexuality and orientation hasn't disappeared entirely from the entertainment money-making machine, it also isn't the personal life sentence automatically hung on all pop-culture players anymore.
Even if being "out" is something that has to be stated less and less, it is important to remember how vital this time is: As politics catches up to popular culture, we should not only celebrate the Tammy Baldwins of the Senate and the Maines, Minnesotas, Marylands and Washingtons embracing equal-marriage rights for all. We should also see the triumphs as a jumping-off point for the rest of the equal-rights work still left to do.
We wouldn't have to identify as gay, straight, trans, queer or ally to get things done -- but showing that we exist as our true selves is a necessary step, as we continue to work to pass the equal-rights legislation that still eludes us. I include all orientations in this idea because, as an ally, I see that GLBTQ human-rights issues are everyone's issues. Our own history as a country tells us that the "separate but equal" notion doesn't work -- legal marriage shouldn't have different definitions for different couples, nor should it be something that is only available to a select few.
And just as a reminder to those who oppose equal rights (especially the marital kind) for all orientations...I may have threatened to marry a gay guy to fuck the system and give the institution of marriage the middle finger, but these guys are going to do me one better: They are just going to marry your girlfriends.
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